A wise man once said “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” That wise man was Albert Einstein, and he happens to be a pretty smart dude. In fact, he felt most of his scientific breakthroughs came as a direct result of improvising on the piano and violin – so put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Music is a journey. Gaining musical proficiency requires both disciplined practice as well as patience. The process is about developing oneself through your ears and out your soul. If you do it right, you’ll notice changes in yourself – how you play a piece, how you perform with others reflects your personality and your day to day life.
Whenever I am struggling with a piece, technical exercise, or memorizing a new program, I find myself falling back on a variety of methods to dig myself out of a hole. Everyone is different, some may need to focus on only one or two of my tips below, others may need to do a little of everything. Below are the best ways I know of how to improve dramatically – even over the course of a day – and really begin to understand problems in your playing in an objective manner.
Listen to yourself: I firmly believe that the better you are at listening, the better you become as a musician. When you practice or perform a piece, how often do you really listen to yourself? Are you aware of that slight noise when your fingers touch the string – or do you just let it slide? Do you hear that gap when you shift from one fret to another down the neck? Take the time to listen to the sounds you create. Listening to each note from its inception until the last audible vibration is the best way to honestly appraise your playing. Start each day by playing/singing one note or chord, close your eyes and listen to it ring out. Take a breath. Repeat. Now you’re ready to move on.
Record yourself: This goes hand in hand with listening. If you record yourself playing for practice or even a performance, and objectively create a map of the things you want to improve you set yourself up for success. Hell, use a webcam, cell phone, video, audio – doesn’t matter. In fact, if you manage to sound great on a terrible recorder you know you’re practice is beginning to pay off.
Stop whatever you’re doing and do the opposite: Want to get faster? Forget speed for a few weeks and go back to basics at a snail’s pace. If you find yourself hitting a wall in your practice, sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break. Spend two weeks practicing something entirely different. Cultivate an awareness of your body and instrument and truly own the notes.
Perform for others: This is the biggest way to improve. Play for others. Play for friends, set up a small house concert. It doesn’t matter if you crash and burn – you’ll be better off after running the gauntlet. I’m convinced that the reason people get so nervous and notice what can seem to be an insurmountable amount of mistakes in performance comes from that fact that not only are you no longer on practice-room-autopilot, but you’re actually listening to yourself – AND – so are other people.
Set Goals: This is simple, but it’s amazing how often people forget. My personal favorite is writing a weekly practice log. Sometimes I break it down into small daily goals. At the extreme, there have been times where I’ve written up a sheet of paper for each piece I’m working on as well as every gig I had coming up. I wrote dates and goals on each page and taped them to my bedroom wall. Every time I accomplished a goal or finished a piece, I checked it off with green marker. Learn to love the green marker. Even if you come up short, aim high. You can only end up ahead.
These are my 5 go-to practice techniques – if you have any other effective ideas, post below!